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In Argentina, Catholics Opposed to Pope Francis Challenge His Legacy of Jewish Relations

Last week’s protest at a Buenos Aires Kristallnacht commemoration was a display of denial—and ignorance

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A woman attending a ceremony that marks the beginning of the Holocaust, left, tries to stop ultra-traditionalist Catholics from interrupting an interfaith event at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 12, 2013. (Rodolfo Pezzoni/AP)
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In Argentina, Kristallnacht has come to be known as “el pogrom de noviembre”—the “November pogrom.” Last week, on the 75th anniversary of that tragic night, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, a cavernous space in the symbolic center of the city, hosted an interfaith commemoration of the violence of that November pogrom convened by the archdiocese of Argentina and the nation’s B’nai B’rith.

Diana Wang, the daughter of survivors and president of the Argentine group Generations of the Shoah, was at the cathedral for the event and did not expect it to be different from any previous commemorations, including the one last year, which was led by then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio—now Pope Francis—and his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka. As in other years, the cathedral was full, crowded with representatives of various Christian denominations, rabbis, Jewish community leaders, politicians, and Holocaust survivors.

But this year, for the first time in the nearly 20-year history of such memorials in Argentine churches, a protest erupted: Members of a far-right religious group, the Society of St. Pius X, staged a group prayer to oppose what they called “the profanation of this space.” According to Wang, it started as a murmur of “Our Father” and other prayers, and then the protesters began chanting the rosary louder and louder. Between 20 and 40 young men, some just teenagers, kneeled down and began praying fervently, their eyes fixed straight ahead.

The Society, an international organization formed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council by Catholics who opposed the liberalization of church doctrine, rejects the promotion of interfaith dialogue—strongly promoted by Pope Francis, who from Vatican City described Jews as “big brothers” to Catholics in his own observance of the Kristallnacht anniversary. It has gained a particular reputation for anti-Semitism. One of its bishops has been convicted of Holocaust denial in the German courts. In October, the Italian branch offered to hold a funeral for Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke, who had been extradited to Italy from Argentina.

The Kristallnacht protest at the Metropolitan Cathedral was a disruption of remembering, an assault on a key moment in Jewish history and Holocaust memory. But it was also a challenge to Pope Francis, on his home turf, and to the entire post-Vatican II infrastructure of interfaith dialogue Francis has reinvigorated since his election as pontiff earlier this year.

Wang—whom I first met through my fieldwork as an anthropologist working with survivor groups in Buenos Aires—told me she felt a sensation of fear. She worried that violence might erupt, in a church filled with elderly survivors. But they surprised her: The survivors in the cathedral, she told me, stood their ground “like soldiers,” refusing to leave. “I am not going anywhere from here,” they said later. “Ni loca”—not for anything—“would I go.”

Others in attendance tried to intervene and stop the protest. Martha de Antueno, president of the Argentine Judeo-Christian Confraternity, decried their use of the rosary—a holy prayer—as a “weapon” against the memory of Holocaust victims being remembered that evening. But the men continued their prayers, murmuring louder and louder as they stared ahead. “They then confronted me, asking, how can I as a Catholic be supporting an event with those who had killed Jesus?” de Antueno told me afterward. One of the protesters took over the microphone and called out, “Leave, and stop this profanation.” After nearly an hour, the protesters finally left.

***

Jews have long occupied a tenuous position in Argentina, home to the seventh-largest Jewish population in the world, and the largest in Latin America. They built an array of synagogues, schools and social service organizations, but the country where they found refuge also became an infamous haven for Nazis, many living under assumed identities—including, of course, Adolf Eichmann, who was known as “Ricardo Klement” until his capture by the Mossad in 1960. At the time, neo-Nazi groups responded by unleashing violence that included the kidnapping of a young Jewish student named Graciela Sirota; they tattooed a swastika onto her body. Since then, Jews have experienced waves of anti-Semitism, especially during the political repression of the military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983, and the trauma of two terrorist attacks that targeted Jewish sites in the early 1990s.

But today, three decades after the collapse of the junta, Argentines memorialize the Holocaust through museums, monuments, archives, and commemorative programs like last week’s, as well as through active outreach to society at large, Jews and non-Jews alike, undertaken by the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires and survivor groups, like Generations of the Shoah. Argentina, as the only Latin American member nation in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, also gives official state support for Holocaust commemoration in the national school curriculum. Holocaust remembrance ceremonies like the event at the cathedral are generally not controversial affairs—simply part of the landscape of memorial practices in Buenos Aires.

Last week’s protests at the cathedral were met immediately with formal condemnation from many organizations, including Argentina’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Earlier this week, Pope Francis himself stepped forward to condemn these acts and the intolerance they represent.

And yet it is difficult to imagine what impact such public disapproval might have on the men who came to condemn the commemoration of a mass genocide, except to give them the attention they wanted in the first place. In the images from that night, one sees blank stares in the eyes of those praying, the unwillingness to listen or engage in any kind of dialogue at all. “They were like machines that were repeating things, that didn’t know the meaning of what they were saying,” said de Antueno. “Something completely without meaning.”

But the sentiments they voiced, and the challenge to the memory of the Holocaust they represent, weren’t entirely new to Argentine public discourse. Days before the commemoration, Jaime Durán Barba, a campaign consultant to the mayor of Buenos Aires, stated in an interview that “Hitler was spectacular.” He meant it within the context of the Nazi propaganda machine, apparently, but to many Jews, it sounded uncomfortably like praise for the most ruthless tyrant of the modern era.

“What stood out to me was that the reaction to what he said only came from the Jewish community,” Diana Wang told me. What about the rest of Argentina, she wondered. Shouldn’t they care that he speaks this way about Hitler? Sergio Widder, the Latin America representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told me that terms like “Nazi” are today thrown around quite easily—a trivialization that “dilutes the real meaning of the term and significance of what it is.” He felt both sadness and anger about what happened that night—because, he noted, “it took advantage of a moment that was very sacred. It was a commemoration of Kristallnacht, one of the most painful moments for the Jewish people in the history of the Holocaust.”

***

Yet there are those who feel that the real danger to memory may lie in the performance of commemorations as a ritual empty of meaning. Jack Fuchs, a survivor from Lodz, Poland, was at the event that night. Fuchs has written extensively about the Holocaust and is the subject of a recent Argentine documentary about his experience as a survivor, El Arbol de la Muralla. It was not his first time commemorating Kristallnacht at the cathedral; in the past, he had been invited to light a candle in memory of the dead. Fuchs was a young man when the war ended and he was freed from Auschwitz. But now, almost 60 years later, in a place so far from Nazi Europe in both time and space, he wonders, how much do people care about what happened? And what value do these public interfaith memorial events really have? “I guess everybody wants to act like open people, liberal and progressive, so they want to show this can be done,” he told me. “But it is all a show.”

Reflecting on what happened last week, Fuchs told me that he was less concerned about the protesters than he was about the future of Holocaust memory in Argentina. “What value does lighting a candle have for survivors, who are now very old?” he asked. Can an act of memory really impart an understanding, an understanding necessary for the tolerance that would challenge the likes of the Society of St. Pius X protesters? “I don’t know what is more dangerous,” he commented, mournfully. “Denying the existence of the Holocaust or not knowing anything about it.”

***

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In Argentina, Catholics Opposed to Pope Francis Challenge His Legacy of Jewish Relations

Last week’s protest at a Buenos Aires Kristallnacht commemoration was a display of denial—and ignorance

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